Robots are making their way into everyday life, and they may soon be making their way into everyday work life at DISA.
The agency’s Accounting and Readiness Division, part of the Resource Management Center, recently completed a pilot program using a digital robot to work routing processes in preparation for the 2018 financial audit.
The team is encouraged with the pilot’s initial findings.
“Robotic process automation, or RPA, is a labor-saving tool that is becoming more commonplace across industry and the government,” said Bill Balko, DISA’s chief knowledge officer.
RPA software mimics the ability of humans in carrying out a task within a process … quickly, accurately, and tirelessly — freeing humans to do other tasks requiring emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgement, and interaction with customers, he said.
Leaders in the Accounting and Readiness Division wanted to test the RPA concept in a 12-week pilot. The robot was configured to support an expected workload surge associated with the 2018 financial audit.
“We wanted to see how well a bot could assist our staff during a high workload scenario,” said Barbara Crawford, chief the Accounting and Readiness Division. “We believe the pilot went well, and the results will inform other centers on the utility and efficiency these bots might bring in support of their missions and in support to the warfighter.”
“During this pilot, the robot worked under the derived credentials of a human employee, and only worked executable tasks authorized by human managers,” said Roger Greenwell, DISA’s risk management executive and authorizing official. “The pilot should help us establish a path forward to using bots in a secure way in other areas of the agency.”
In order to best utilize the bot, a team of subject matter experts identified the recurring and major processes employees are routinely expected to execute in order to develop a full accounting and auditing of DISA’s General Funds (GF) and Working Capital Funds (WCF).
In the past, employees had to execute a high number of time-consuming tasks to get the required financial data arranged and organized correctly for the audit.
“We were hopeful using RPA we could free the humans from the task of compiling and organizing the data so they could focus on analyzing the data, rather than putting folders of information together,” said
Priscilla Appelgate, an accountant and one of the leaders of the pilot. “For example, we wanted the bot to review accounts payable, undelivered orders, and also be able to pull together the supporting documentation for the property, plant, and equipment (PP&E) processes.”
The team recommended the bot work on four routine, time-consuming processes to support the audit:
- Populate SharePoint with general fund PP&E asset supporting documents.
- Populate SharePoint with WCF accounts receivable documents.
- Consolidate SharePoint folders.
- Populate the GF financial management workbook.
The team also recommended the bot compete against a human employee during a data-gathering task before moving forward with the pilot.
“There was quite a bit of skepticism the bot would meet the standard of accuracy our human team members routinely achieve, so we conducted a head-to-head challenge, with the bot facing off against one of our most capable employees,” said Applegate.
The bot/human challenge, conducted April 24, involved a 15-minute test to pull supporting documentation for an audit request.
“The results quieted almost all the skepticism,” Applegate said. “The bot pulled 150 items and the human pulled two. We were thrilled with the result and confident the bot would help us with the audit.”
The pilot, which cost about $250,000, was tied to an existing contract.
“I think the man-hours saved by the robot, as well as its accuracy, justified the cost,” said Richard Swonger, the Accounting and Readiness Division supervisory accountant.
The RPA pilot is one of many ways DISA is streamlining business processes in order to meet DoD and warfighter needs and supporting strategic resourcing for the future. Expansion into other areas is already planned.
“In the end, we wanted the bot to help us achieve positive audit results without excessive drain on our already taxed resources,” said Crawford. “Although the results are not yet known, we are quite confident the bot will help pull this audit together in a more efficient and effective way.”